• Perspective Mag

Mental Health Matters - Gender Roles, Societal Norms and Desi Taboos

One in every 10 Pakistanis suffers from a major mental illness according to the Pakistan Psychiatric Society. Yet despite this alarmingly high statistic - which translates to 21 million Pakistanis suffering from major mental illnesses - very few people are aware of anyone in their friends or family that is struggling. 

 With only 400 psychiatrists and 5 psychiatric hospitals in the entire country, there aren’t many resources available to fully target this sector either and awareness has only recently seen an increase - mainly due to individual efforts through social media campaigns. So why have we refused to talk about a problem that so many of our loved ones might be struggling with? It could be a mix of lack of education as well as this overwhelming need to keep our image and reputation in society intact. Due to the fact that there is little reliable information regarding mental illnesses, their causes and treatment, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding this topic. People suffering from mental illnesses often face social exclusion and prejudice in both personal and professional circles. It is only lately that young people in particular, have come up with ways to improve attitudes regarding mental health and create safe spaces to be able to talk openly about it.  Mental illnesses can stem in different scenarios and can affect people in many different ways. It’s important to understand how different socio-economic situations as well as differences in gender can lead to mental illnesses manifesting in different ways. 


Why do Gender Roles Matter?  Gender roles are quite polarised in Pakistani society that means that impact of social situations differs vastly for both men and women. Having such set roles according to gender leaves little room for self-expression when someone does not fit exactly within these defined expectations.  With all the expectations for men to be breadwinners of the family and more importantly be “macho” men often feel forced to repress their feelings which causes them to build up. They express themselves with feelings of anger and agitation as that is seen as the only acceptable emotion for men to portray. According to the Karachi Mental Health Report 2012 then ratio of male to female suicides was 6:1. This is despite the fact that more Pakistani women suffer from mental illnesses than their male counterparts. The results of the report show just how deeply society can be affected and the likelihood of the result being suicide when such topics are repressed and brushed under the rug. Incidents of anger and aggressive behaviour can be seen in young boys from an early age. Such behaviour in children should be seen as a wake-up call that a lot of adult problems stem from childhood experiences and it is important to tackle these taboos from younger ages.  Women face a completely different set of, but equally harsh, problems. The differences in the experiences of both men and women often make it hard for both groups to understand each other and leave a communication gap between the two. In Pakistan, the most common cause for women suffering from mental illnesses is due to consistent emotional or physical abuse. The effects of abuse are not limited by gender, however, and they can have an equally adverse impact on men. This links to the same discussion of men feeling the need to act “strong” which causes them to not admit to being abused as that can lead to ridicule or be seen as marring their manliness. Hiding such incidents does not mean their impact goes away and it can have long-term repercussions if not addressed properly.

Divorce continues to be a taboo, which makes it harder to escape abusive relationships and is amongst one of the many reasons that women, in particular, cite as a reason to stay with an abusive partner. Other common reasons are also seen to be a lack of self-esteem, a feeling of dependency on their partner and in extreme cases even the belief that that somehow deserve it. All of these lead to victims being stuck in an endless cycle of abuse that has as much psychological effects as it does physical. The experience of abuse leaves women at a greater risk for a number of mental disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse.


It’s important to recognize that the issues we face in our society go beyond the individual.  Prevalent health issues can be triggered due to societal constraints and norms that go so deep, it seems almost impossible for one person to change. The effects of these norms build up since childhood and it can be quite hard to get to the bottom of these issues in later years. Often, they’re so in-built into our thought-process that the very first step is recognising them as a problem in the first place.  The first step to helping out the millions of people in this country who need it, is understanding the root causes of the issue. However, it is not just enough to know why some people may suffer from mental illnesses. To limit it as such would mean reducing mental illnesses to a situational issue that will end once a bad moment is over. Most mental illnesses have severe long-term effects if not treated and some such as depression can have genetic links as well. The responsibility to help reduce the effects of these illnesses and help those suffering lies with both individuals and government bodies. What’s Being Done?  A number of NGOs focusing solely on mental health awareness and rehabilitation have come up and they have brought a much needed change. They’re working hard to change the mindset that seeking help for mental health somehow makes you a lesser person and we can only hope their efforts do not go in vain. 


Rozan is one such organization who aims to remove stigmas and provide people with a ray of hope when they feel like there is none left. The organisation’s vision is A self-aware, gender-just society that celebrates diversity and is free of violence Speaking with Ms. Roohi Ghani, who has been working with Rozan as a psychologist for 10 years, gave us an insight into the workings of the organisation as well as what can be done. According to Ms. Ghani, the biggest problem we face as a nation is the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses. She believes that even those in the healthcare industry such as GPs and psychologists also need to take more responsibility. Even certified GPs seem uneducated when it comes to mental illnesses and that is what starts the chain of neglect.  Through free counselling, campaigns and orientation programs in person as well as on radio and television, rozan is spreading the message that whether mental or physical, all illnesses are the same and deserve the same attention. As Ms Ghani said, victory lies in treatment and the first step to that is acceptance. Since counselling is often hard to reach for many patients, Rozan’s free counselling services through phone and over email can be a blessing for many who find no other way to get the help they need.  Rozan offers counselling over their toll-free line, mobile and email. Toll-free: 080022444 Mobile: 03355000401-02-03-04 Timings: Monday to Friday 9am-5pm  Email: yhl@rozan.org

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